I Need a Hero: Incorporating Monomyth and Narrative in Online Course Design

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session MERLOT

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Brief Abstract

Explore the role of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” in establishing students as the “epic heroes” of online courses.  Participants will play three original games inspired by old MS-DOS favorites like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, and reflect on narrative in the design of online curriculum, environments and processes.


Angela Gunder serves as Director of Instructional Design and Curriculum Development for the Office of Digital Learning at The University of Arizona. Angela came into instructional design rather circuitously, helming large-scale site designs as webmaster for The City College of New York, the honors college at ASU, and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).  Her over fifteen year career as a designer for higher education informs her instructional design practice, where she leverages her expertise in usability, visual communication, programming, and standards-based online learning. Angela holds a B.S. in Computer Science and Fine Art from Fordham University, and a M.Ed. in Education Technology from Arizona State University.  Prior to her position at UA, she was a member of NOVA’s instructional design team, supporting over 23,000 students in 550 unique courses.   Angela is an Associate Editor for the Teacher Education Board of MERLOT, and a Quality Matters certified peer reviewer and online facilitator.  Her research interests include technology for second language acquisition, open educational resources, and emerging technology to promote digital literacy. A voracious culinary nerd, Angela spends her free time composing, cooking and photographing original recipes for her food blog.
Cathy Russell has over 10 years experience working in higher education. Upon receiving her Bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and her Master's degree in Educational Technology from Texas A&M University, she began her career. She started as an Instructional Designer for Blinn College, Lonestar College, and Pima Community College before arriving at the University of Arizona. She has worked with multiple Learning Management Systems, including WebCT, Angel, Blackboard, and D2L. Cathy is also in her 9th year of teaching online as an Adjunct for Lonestar College. Being an online student and online instructor has provided Cathy with invaluable perspective to aid in course design. She is interested in researching methods in online course design that will create higher rates of student success and is passionate about making online courses that enhance learning and are interactive.
Dr. Jessica Knott is Assistant Vice President of Community Strategy, Experience, and Management. In this role, Jessica manages outreach activities and strategies, including environmental scanning, experience design, communications and planning, based on a deep understanding of our community and member interests. Prior to the OLC, Jessica led a team that supported faculty and academic staff in creating quality, caring and exemplary digital experiences at Michigan State University.

Extended Abstract

Educators face the challenge of creating learning environments that support experiential, student-centered experiences, fostering student engagement and persistence. As a means of creating a high-engagement experience in the design of the online environment, what if we reframed the role, responsibility and path of the student through the course? What if, in the course design process, we took the approach of envisioning the experience as a narrative unfolding over the course of the semester?

In 1949, writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the “monomyth” cycle in his seminal work, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” citing that many of our stories passed down throughout time follow a common narrative structure (Campbell, 1968).   Since its publication, Campbell’s seventeen stages within the monomyth have been identified in myriad works ranging in diversity from the Bible to Star Wars (Campbell, 1968; Vogler, 1992). This framework includes leaving one’s ordinary world, answering a call to adventure, crossing the threshold, meeting mentors, confronting obstacles, facing down fears, enduring tests and trials, and walking the road to victory.  Given the research on gameful learning, online narrative and digital storytelling, and crafting learning experiences that promote autonomy and differentiation, Campbell’s monomyth serves as a powerful tool for planning online curriculum, learning experience design, and structuring the instructional design process itself.

Building on previous sessions offered at past OLC Innovate conferences (“The Hero’s Journey: Leveraging Narrative in Online Course Design” and “Leveraging Narrative in Online Course Design: Storytelling, Ethnography, and the Hero’s Journey”), the presenters will offer three methods for weaving the monomyth cycle into strategies for course design, learning environment design, and instructional design.  These methods will be presented by engaging participants in the playing of three original games.  Small groups will self-select which game they’d like to play, collaboratively work through the use cases presented, and share out their findings with the larger group.  Through the course of the game play, participants will reflect on the salient and “sticky” elements of tried and true game interfaces like Oregon Trail, King’s Quest and the Carmen Sandiego series, tying the storytelling and interactive elements to effective practices within online course design.

Participants in this session will:

  • Examine a narrative framework within online course design across disciplines and applications

  • Explore rationales for narrative approaches through a series of original, collaborative role-playing games

  • Reflect on approaches for creating tangible experiential gains in courses through gameful learning principles such as microcredentialing, avatars, digital storytelling and teamwork

  • Discuss the implementation of the monomyth in the multiple stages of online course design

Upon completion of the session, participants will be connected to a bevy of resources that will help with marrying the monomyth to the design and development of online courses.  They’ll gain access to the presenters’ website, which includes a framework worksheet for narrative in online course design, as well as the games played in the session.  They will also be invited to contribute to the examples of narrative in online course design collected on the website, thereby furthering the conversation on how the monomyth can establish students as the epic heroes of their academic journey.


Campbell, J., 1904-1987. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2d ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Vogler, C. (1992). The Writer’s Journal: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters.